The most famous form of seppuku is also known as harakiri (腹切り, "cutting the belly") and is written with the same kanji as seppuku but in reverse order with an okurigana. In Japanese, harakiri is a colloquialism, seppuku being the more formal term. Samurai would use seppuku, whereas ordinary Japanese (who in feudal times as well as today looked askance at the practice) would use harakiri. Harakiri is the more common term in English, where it is often mistakenly rendered "harikari".
In his book The Samurai Way of Death, Samurai: The World of the Warrior (ch.4), Dr. Stephen Turnbull states:
Seppuku was commonly performed using a tantō. It could take place with preparation and ritual in the privacy of one's home, or speedily in a quiet corner of a battlefield while one’s comrades kept the enemy at bay.
In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it is an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.
Sometimes a daimyo was called upon to perform seppuku as the basis of a peace agreement. This would weaken the defeated clan so that resistance would effectively cease. Toyotomi Hideyoshi used an enemy's suicide in this way on several occasions, the most dramatic of which effectively ended a dynasty of daimyo forever, when the Hōjō were defeated at Odawara in 1590. Hideyoshi insisted on the suicide of the retired daimyo Hōjō Ujimasa, and the exile of his son Ujinao. With one sweep of a sword, the most powerful daimyo family in eastern Japan was put to an end.
In time, committing seppuku came to involve a detailed ritual. This was usually performed in front of spectators if it were a planned seppuku, not one performed on a battlefield. A samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes, fed his favorite meal, and when he was finished, his instrument was placed on his plate. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special cloths, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem. With his selected attendant (kaishakunin, his second) standing by, he would open his kimono (robe), take up his tantō (knife) and plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. The kaishakunin would then perform dakikubi, a cut in which the warrior was all but decapitated (a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body). Because of the precision necessary for such a manoeuver, the second was often a skilled swordsman. The principal agreed in advance when the kaishakunin was to make his cut, usually as soon as the dagger was plunged into the abdomen.
This elaborate ritual evolved after seppuku had ceased being mainly a battlefield or wartime practice and become a para-judicial institution (see next section).
The second was usually, but not always, a friend. If a defeated warrior had fought honorably and well, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second.
From ages past it has been considered ill-omened by samurai to be requested as kaishaku. The reason for this is that one gains no fame even if the job is well done. And if by chance one should blunder, it becomes a lifetime disgrace.
In the practice of past times, there were instances when the head flew off. It was said that it was best to cut leaving a little skin remaining so that it did not fly off in the direction of the verifying officials. However, at present it is best to cut clean through.
A specialized form of seppuku in feudal times was known as kanshi (諌死, "death of understanding"), in which a retainer would commit suicide in protest of a lord's decision. The retainer would make one deep, horizontal cut into his stomach, then quickly bandage the wound. After this, the person would then appear before his lord, give a speech in which he announced the protest of the lord's action, then reveal his mortal wound. This is not to be confused with funshi (憤死, indignation death), which is any suicide made to state dissatisfaction or protest. A fictional variation of kanshi was the act of kagebara (陰腹, "shadow stomach") in Japanese theater, in which the protagonist, at the end of the play, would announce to the audience that he had committed an act similar to kanshi, a predetermined slash to the stomach followed by a tight field dressing, and then perish, bringing about a dramatic end.
Some samurai chose to perform a considerably more taxing form of seppuku known as jūmonji giri (十文字切り, "cross-shaped cut"), in which there is no kaishakunin to put a quick end to the samurai's suffering. It involves a second and more painful vertical cut across the belly. A samurai performing jumonji giri was expected to bear his suffering quietly until perishing from loss of blood, passing away with his hands over his face.
The first recorded time a Westerner saw formal seppuku was the "Sakai Incident" of 1868. On February 15, eleven French sailors of the Dupleix entered a Japanese town called Sakai without official permission. Their presence caused panic among the residents. Security forces were dispatched to turn the sailors back to their ship, but a fight broke out and the sailors were shot dead. Upon the protest of the French representative, financial compensation was paid and those responsible were sentenced to death. The French captain was present to observe the execution. As each samurai committed ritual disembowelment, the gruesome nature of the act shocked the captain, and he requested a pardon, due to which nine of the samurai were spared. This incident was dramatized in a famous short story, Sakai Jiken, by Mori Ōgai.
In the 1860s, The British Ambassador to Japan, Algernon Freeman-Mitford (Lord Redesdale) lived within sight of Sengaku-ji where the Forty-seven Ronin are buried. In his book Tales of Old Japan, he describes a man who had come to the graves to kill himself:
I will add one anecdote to show the sanctity which is attached to the graves of the Forty-seven. In the month of September 1868, a certain man came to pray before the grave of Oishi Chikara. Having finished his prayers, he deliberately performed hara-kiri, and, the belly wound not being mortal, dispatched himself by cutting his throat. Upon his person were found papers setting forth that, being a Ronin and without means of earning a living, he had petitioned to be allowed to enter the clan of the Prince of Choshiu, which he looked upon as the noblest clan in the realm; his petition having been refused, nothing remained for him but to die, for to be a Ronin was hateful to him, and he would serve no other master than the Prince of Choshiu: what more fitting place could he find in which to put an end to his life than the graveyard of these Braves? This happened at about two hundred yards' distance from my house, and when I saw the spot an hour or two later, the ground was all bespattered with blood, and disturbed by the death-struggles of the man.
Mitford also describes his friend's eyewitness account of a Seppuku:
There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being displayed in the harakiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead.
During the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa Shogun's aide committed Seppuku:
One more story and I have done. During the revolution, when the Taikun (Supreme Commander), beaten on every side, fled ignominiously to Yedo, he is said to have determined to fight no more, but to yield everything. A member of his second council went to him and said, "Sir, the only way for you now to retrieve the honour of the family of Tokugawa is to disembowel yourself; and to prove to you that I am sincere and disinterested in what I say, I am here ready to disembowel myself with you." The Taikun flew into a great rage, saying that he would listen to no such nonsense, and left the room. His faithful retainer, to prove his honesty, retired to another part of the castle, and solemnly performed the harakiri.
In his book Tales of Old Japan, Mitford describes witnessing a hara-kiri :
As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the harakiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hyōgo in the month of February 1868,—an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveller's fable.
The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado himself, took place at 10:30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all.
After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:
"I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act."
Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.
A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.
The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of rice paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution.
The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburo had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple.
The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterized throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master."
Seppuku as judicial punishment was officially abolished in 1873, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, but voluntary seppuku did not completely die out. Dozens of people are known to have committed seppuku since then, including some military men who committed suicide in 1895 as a protest against the return of a conquered territory to China; by General Nogi and his wife on the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912; and by numerous soldiers and civilians who chose to die rather than surrender at the end of World War II.
In 1970, famed author Yukio Mishima and one of his followers committed public seppuku at the Japan Self-Defense Forces headquarters after an unsuccessful attempt to incite the armed forces to stage a coup d'état. Mishima committed seppuku in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita. His second, a 25-year-old named Masakatsu Morita, tried three times to ritually behead Mishima but failed; his head was finally severed by Hiroyasu Koga. Morita then attempted to commit seppuku himself. Although his own cuts were too shallow to be fatal, he gave the signal and he too was beheaded by Koga.